(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)
In his seminal book on Laurel and Hardy, Charles Barr declares, “Their First Mistake is a film about the Stan Laurel character.” More accurately, this 1932 short subject is a film about the Stan and Ollie characters’ relationships, to each other and to their on-screen wives. This short, made fairly early on in their sound-movie career, is nearly a summation of many L&H themes that appeared before and after. In this film, we have:
* an extremely hostile wife (de rigeur in most L&H films)
* perhaps L&H’s most extreme expression of their childlikeness
* their devotion to each other at the expense of any other relationships
Armchair analysts (and you’re reading one of them right now) have for years made hay of the supposed homosexual subtext in Laurel & Hardy movies. It’s always risky to make such inferences about movies that their own creators stated were meant only for a few laughs. But in this film in particular, such symbolism is so blatant as to be unavoidable.
Their First Mistake opens with Mrs. Arabella Hardy (Mae Busch) chastizing her husband Ollie for spending too much time with Stan, when the phone rings and who should it be but Stan? Ollie answers the phone and fools his wife by addressing the caller as “Mr. Jones.” This causes an immediate identity crisis in Stan, who checks out his mirror image and his wallet I.D.’s to make sure he’s still himself.
Ollie tells his wife that the caller was his boss, Mr. Jones, inviting him to a company outing. Mrs. Hardy beams with pride until Stan comes to Ollie’s apartment to tell him that it was he on the phone. Mrs. Hardy chases Ollie around the apartment and beats him with a broom, scaring Stan just far enough out of the apartment to observe the fracas from an outdoor window. Ollie makes a hasty exit, knocking Stan down as they both head for Stan’s apartment across the way. Mrs. Hardy pounds on the door and announces that if Ollie spends any more time with Stan, she’s leaving him.
Ollie seems more concerned with placating Stan, with whom he finds himself alone on the bed. They engage in a prolonged conversation while indulging in mindless behavior — Ollie playing finger games, Stan polishing his shoes with the bedsheet. Barr finds this scene fascinating in its childishness, but actually, anyone looking for gay L&H subtext couldn’t do better than this scene. The pair’s coyish pre-coital activity, combined with some surprising dialogue — “She says I think more of you than I do of her”; “Well, you do, doncha?”; “Well, we won’t go into that” — seem ready for cataloguing in the Celluloid Closet sequel.*
Stan suggests that Ollie adopt a baby — not out of any parental desires, but to keep Mrs. Hardy occupied during his and Ollie’s outings. Ollie proclaims this a brilliant idea (Well, he would, wouldn’t he?) and tells Stan to head for the adoption agency with him. Stan, his brilliance already evaporated, asks, “What for?”
In the next scene, Stan and Ollie are bringing an adopted baby back to Ollie’s apartment. (Amazing — two not-too-bright men have more trouble getting a bank loan in Pack Up Your Troubles than they do in adopting a kid.) Along the way, they offer a congratulatory cigar to a curious neighbor (Mistake director George Marshall). They find the apartment empty and are then visited by a process server (L&H veteran Billy Gilbert). The process server proffers two summonses from Mrs. Hardy — one to Ollie for divorce, the other to Stan “for the alienation of Mr. Hardy’s affections.” (Sadly missing is the scene in which Mrs. Hardy would prove her case.)
There follows a nice parody of the old abandoned-lover theme, with Ollie as the jilted mother and Stan as the selfish deserter. “Why, it was you who wanted me to have this baby,” wails Ollie, “and now you want to leave me flat!” Stan declares that he has a reputation to protect (this from a man who began the film by inviting Ollie to a cement-workers’ ball in the hopes of winning a free steam shovel). Ollie blocks Stan’s exit, waking the baby in the process.
The rest of the film consists of their efforts to quiet the baby, and it is here that the movie’s frenzied maternal symbolism comes to a head. Much ado is made of bottle nipples, and every time Stan tests the baby’s milk for warmth, he can’t resist swigging a few chugs before reluctantly passing it to the baby. At one point, Stan’s “white magic” routine (doing out-of-this-world tricks manner-of-factly) reaches its peak when he nonchalantly pulls a full milk bottle out of his nightshirt, where he was “keeping it warm.” Ollie’s camera-look reactions here speak volumes.
The final scene shows the baby, Stan, and Ollie asleep in bed. To stop the baby’s incessant crying, Ollie sleepily passes a milk bottle across the bed — ostensibly for the baby, but the bottle reaches only to Stan. After getting his face doused with milk, Stan’s mouth finds the mother lode and indulges appropriately. Surprisingly, the baby stops crying until Stan finishes the bottle and is offered another one by Ollie. One would almost think the baby smart enough to protect her caretaker’s needs before her own–but then, if the baby was that smart, she wouldn’t be with these two guys to start with.
So Stan finishes off a bottle-and-a-half of milk, plus a complete nipple chewed and swallowed, before Ollie wakes up enough to realize what has happened. The scene is quite funny on its own, but the infantile imagery of Stan — his face doused with milk, contentedly suckling — is almost eye-popping. It’s like an image out of Luis Bunuel’s Un Chien Andalou.
It seems as though the film could continue in this vein forever, but sadly, it closes on a throwaway gag (Ollie chastizing Stan for drinking the baby’s milk, then spilling the remainder on himself — more symbolism, perhaps?). L&H biographer Randy Skretvedt states that an alternate final scene, proposed but not filmed, showed Arabella Hardy returning to the Hardy apartment with a baby she adopted. (How easily were babies adopted in 1932, anyway?). This scene would have provided a fitting conclusion — with Mrs. Hardy, like her husband, indulging in a familial gesture, yet doing it entirely independent of her spouse.
It’s always dangerous to indulge in the kind of pedantic analysis that kills most comedy. Yet Their First Mistake, quite funny on its own terms, offers the ultimate statement on Stan and Ollie’s relationship: No matter how many (or what kinds of) people are involved in their lives — wives, babies, cement workers — Stan and Ollie are really most concerned with nurturing and protecting each other.
*POSTSCRIPT: This essay was originally published in Britain’s Laurel and Hardy Magazine, because of which a reader lambasted me for trying to imply any hint of homosexuality in Stan and Ollie’s relationship. However, The Celluloid Closet, the 2000 documentary about cinema’s depictions of gayness — which I hadn’t seen before writing this essay — does indeed use the “We won’t go into that” clip from Their First Mistake as an example of the movie’s subject. So apparently, I’m not the only one who noticed this.